One thing that all runners want to know is what shoes are right for them. For many people, with running shoe collections that would make Imelda Marcos proud, finding the perfect shoe is a lifetime endeavour.
I am a big advocate for 'minimalist' running shoes, a somewhat vague term encompassing all shoes that are light weight, flexible and have a small differential between heel and toe height. (For a great resource on minimal shoes check out La Clinique du Coureur.). However, as with everything it is possible to have too much of a good thing and strapping on a minimalist shoe is no guarantee of reduced injury risk. In this article I look at how minimalist shoes can help you become a better runner. The article first appeared in R4YL magazine.
The rapidly expanding range of minimalist running shoes currently available reflects the greater understanding researchers are now gaining of good running mechanics. The idea that the way you run is not pre-ordained but is rather a modifiable, learnable skill has surprisingly only recently started filtering into the public consciousness. Until recently changes to your running form focussed on footwear and enhancing the level of heel lift, cushioning, and arch support in shoes in order to increase comfort and mitigate the risk of injury. However, research from prominent academics such as Australian Doctor Craig Richards and Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, has called into question whether this is indeed the best way to look after the body when we run. In fact it seems that the very best way to run in order to maximise comfort, efficiency, technique, and perhaps even reduce the risk of injury may be as our children do every day of their lives – namely barefoot. Ironically, the current movement towards barefoot running and the improvements in running form that going barefoot encourages have seen the invention of an entire new genre of running footwear – namely minimalist/barefoot shoes!
Minimalist shoes such as Vibram Fivefingers are characterised by their light weight, flexibility, thin or non-existent midsole and reduced differential between heel and toe heights. The rationale behind their construction is to minimise the effect the shoe has on our foot strike and to allow us to run in as natural a way as possible. Rather than supporting and cushioning the foot, minimalist shoes actively encourage the muscles in the feet and legs to work, developing greater strength and utilising the body’s own muscles and joints to absorb the impacts associated with running. Not surprisingly, the promise of greater efficiency and fewer injuries has piqued the interest of many runners with sales of minimalist shoes soaring. Does this mean that running injuries are on the decline and that everyone who owns a pair of minimalist shoes is gliding through the streets like Anton Krupicka? In a word: no.
Running is a highly complex skill requiring co-ordination of many different movements into the fluid action we recognise as running. As with all complex tasks, it requires practice, refinement and sometimes teaching to perfect. Unfortunately it does not appear that any shoe can magically ‘fix’ flaws in your running technique. In the same way I have not come across a special glove that allows you to play guitar like Hendrix. Rather than trying to patch up poor mechanics with shoes, I have found clinically that the best approach to managing running related injuries is to look directly at technique and work on improving the way we run. Some of the aspects of barefoot running that are favourable biomechanically such as a midfoot strike, upright posture, alignment through the hips, and increased cadence can all be taught and learned whether wearing shoes or not. The great advantage of minimalist shoes in learning to run with good technique is that they offer greater feedback with the ground and reduce interference with normal movement of the foot. Therefore, running with good technique is not an automatic effect of putting on a pair of minimal shoes; however, it does make the process easier for many people and will ultimately enable you to optimise your running form.
Are minimalist shoes the answer to your injury concerns? Not on their own, but as one piece of the puzzle you certainly may find they help you discover your optimum running form.
For more information about running technique please click here.